Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When Rossini Meets Fellini

Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia
Juilliard Opera
November 21, 2014

Il Turco in Italia at Julliard
From the very overture of Juilliard’s Il Turco in Italia we are introduced to Prosdocimo, a handsome and sleek author going through a creative crisis, chewing up and scattering to the wind handwritten notes and tormentedly pulling out his hair. When the curtain rises, a bright and peaceful Italian spa (terme) is unveiled, with a disparate cast of characters (nuns, priests, fancy bourgeoisie, doctors and nurses) leisurely strolling through the white marble backdrop and palm gardens and drinking water from crystal mugs. The look is late 1950s down to the last detail. Prosdocimo stands out, now donning a pair of dark sunglasses and looking more annoyed and lost as ever, making it very clear that director John Giampietro had a genius Fellini’s 8 ½-inspired take on Rossini’s Turco. Our operatic Prosdocimo as the cinematic Guido works brilliantly and effortlessly, since the original libretto already uses this character in a very meta-theatrical way as the alter ego of the composer/librettist who is stuck on his newest dramma giocoso (Ho da fare un dramma buffo / e non trovo l’argomento!) and functions throughout the opera as narrator punctuating key plot points with hilarious commentary.

Geronio complains to Prosdocimo
Photo credit: Ruby Washington/NYTimes
From the get-go Prosdocimo tells the public that he cannot find the right plot idea, some are too sappy, others are too flat (Questo ha troppo sentimento, / quello insipido mi par). This character was played by the amazing Polish baritone Szymon Komasa, who proved to be not only a strong expressive singer, with a manly smooth tone and power to match, but also an extraordinary actor with charismatic stage presence. Mr. Komasa embodied Prosdocimo with intense energy, portraying him as the puppet-master who pushes the rest of the cast to serve his plot points and enthusiastically becomes more and more pleased with himself for how the opera is playing out. Whenever Mr. Komasa was on stage, even if not singing, he was always doing something character specific, now taking notes, now coaching and coaxing some other singers on the side, now intently observing how his ideas play out.

Geronio gets his aura read by the "gypsies"
Photo credit: Ken Howard
It is Prosdocimo who introduces (and comments on) the rest of the cast to the public: there’s a group of gypsies (in this production immigrant spa-workers) among whom the beautiful and sweet Zaida sings of her lost love. Next is Fiorilla, a spitfire of a coquettish liberal wife bored after six years of marriage and flirting left and right, to the despair of her jealous older husband Geronio. At this point the author rejoices at the great opportunities offered by a dumb husband and a capricious wife (Un marito-scimunito! / Una sposa-capricciosa! / No: di meglio non si dà). The plot thickens with the arrival of Selim, a sexy and exotic Turkish prince who immediately attracts (and is attracted by) Fiorilla but also happens to be Zaida’s long lost lover. The love triangles and vignettes that gush out of this setting are extremely juicy – think of the confrontation between Geronio and Selim, where the Turkish prince tries to convince the cuckold Italian husband to go the Turkish way, where husbands simply sell off annoying wives (to which Geronio responds that in Italy it’s customary for the husband to punch the wife-buyer in the nose):

D’un bell’uso di Turchia
forse avrai novella intesa:
della moglie che gli pesa
il marito è venditor.

Sarà l’uso molto buono,
ma in Italia è più bell’uso:
il marito rompe il muso
quasi sempre al comprator.

Or else consider the cat fight between Zaida and Fiorilla and the Act I finale with the two women in a bitter rivalry for the favors of Selim and calling each other all sorts of names (pettegola, civetta, frasca, sciocca, impertinente). This was one of the most hilarious scenes of the evening, when all characters try to placate the women, except for Prosdocimo who is delighted by the fight and actually incites them to hit harder (Seguitate...via...bravissime… / qua...là...bene; in questo modo… / azzuffatevi, stringetevi, / la godo…), in this production he even teaches each of them complementary boxing moves to enhance the drama.

Fiorilla plays hard to get
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Why on earth Il Turco in Italia is not part of standard repertoire is beyond me. I personally found it way more entertaining than Il barbiere di Siviglia. Plot-wise it’s racy and not very politically correct with a stereotypical polygamous Turk on one end and a wife claiming to be on the prowl for a thousand lovers on the other, but hey all the more fun. There are no dead moments as the story moves quickly with many coups de théâtreone after the other. Despite the unpolitical correctness of much of the opera, the finale is, however, a happy one that adds a touch of a morale to the story, as Prosdocimo puts it: “poi finir con un poco di morale.” The denouement is, in fact, ultimately highly conservative. The love that is written in the stars is reconstituted between Selim and the gypsy Zaida, and the husband wins back his wife and marital bliss wins the day.

The philanderers consort
Photo credit: Ruby Washington/NYTimes
The contrast between the duets between the two potential lovers competing for the Turk’s heart are indicative of the types of love explored in the story. The sentiment of the “Io mi voglio divertir” duet that initiates the romance between Fiorilla and Selim is light hearted and selfish. All either of them want to do is have fun. That Selim ends up settling for the deeper long lost love he once had with Zaida in the duet, “Per la fuga è tutto lesto,” is paralleled to the eventual breaking down of headstrong and selfish Fiorilla whose husband has to break her of her philandering flirtatious ways in order to bring her back into the marital fold. Call it: the taming of the slut.

Fiorilla is free as a bird
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Korean soprano Hyesang Park as Fiorilla was terrific. Her role entails the most challenging and spectacular singing of the opera and Ms. Park displayed vocal agility, sheer power and sensational acting as the flirty yet ultimately repentant wife. Ms. Park’s Italian was excellent and she distilled the most coquettish tone even in recitatif when saying things like “lo zucchero e’ bastante?” (is the sugar enough? – for Selim’s coffee). She was a lot of fun to watch and impressive to hear, delivering a range that went from comic to tragic, though the comic flirty bits were the best parts, such as when she punches her husband for being a jealous bore and tells him she’ll punish him by getting a thousand lovers and by fooling around night and day (Per punirvi aver vogl’io / Mille amanti ognor d’intorno, / Far la pazza notte e giorno, / Divertirmi in libertà!), all while blowing kisses to the spa pool boys. In the scene of her deepest darkest cave in Act II, when Geronio threatens to leave her and she realizes that as a divorcée she would lose her honor, Ms. Park poured her heart out and then completely collapsed. Still on the ground after a long and well-deserved round of applause, she raised her head and bounced back belting out her next lines. The force of her re-attack here was arresting and the power of her voice, after such a long aria, was extraordinary, particularly coming from such a petite frame.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel was also impressive as Selim. He seemed to be the most experienced singer on stage (among other things, he sang Masetto in Lyric Opera of Chigago’s season opening Don Giovanni) and it showed.  His was the most extensive role after Fiorilla’s and he rose to the challenge singing with expressiveness, agility and great comic tempo. Selim’s duets with Fiorilla were probably the most enjoyable bel canto singing of the evening. Mezzo Kara Sainz as Zaida was pure romantic sweetness and rendered her reunion duet with her long lost love Selim particularly touching and heart wrenching. Bass Daniel Miroslaw as Geronio delivered a solid performance, with great stage presence and the right amount of slapstick fun.

Maestra Speranza Scappucci
This, our first outing at Julliard Opera, was a revelation. With the youthful, energetic and gracious Speranza Scappucci at the helm, the whole show ran like precision clockwork. It was not only impressive but also utterly entertaining and pure Rossinian exuberance. The prestigious school really showed that it is worth its salt. I’ll take another dose of these healing waters anytime.

- Lui & Lei

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